Here’s what the publisher, Cranbrook Press, says about the book: “In 1875 England, a young man, Jack Brennan, from a large and impoverished Catholic family refuses to be pushed into the priesthood and runs away to fulfil his dream of becoming a teacher. Jack falls in love with Eliza Hewlett, but his dreams and plans are thwarted when his landlord’s daughter, Mary Ellen MacBride, falsely accuses him of fathering the child she is expecting. Rather than be forced to marry his accuser, Jack decides to run away to America with Eliza. Just as they are about to sail, Jack is arrested and dragged from the ship, leaving Eliza alone en route to New York with just a few shillings in her pocket.”
I must say that the novel surprised me as it doesn’t follow the usual story arc. It made me question how I think a story should be told.
I found the opening chapters, during Jack’s childhood and early years teaching, rather slow moving and the plot didn’t initially hold my attention but as the story progressed I was drawn in. Toward the end of the novel years often flew past and I was sometimes disconcerted by these jumps in time.
As I’ve said, the novel didn’t unfold in the way that I expected. I found it strange to follow two separate story threads that didn’t actually overlap as I had expected them to. Each of the strands, Jack’s and Eliza’s stories, was engrossing in itself, but I was disappointed that they weren’t more firmly bound together. I felt that the two characters’ paths should eventually meet or that there should at least be a ‘near miss’. Although the plot is true to life, I can’t decide whether I found it satisfying or not. In the end, Eliza’s descendant provides the closure to the story but I wondered whether it was enough.
The characters were well drawn and I found it easy to care about Jack and Eliza, and some of the minor characters. I felt empathy for Eliza as she struggled through harrowing experiences and annoyance with Jack for his repeated weakness. The author understood and skilfully portrayed each character’s motivations and actions.
The vividly evoked settings in England and America were another of the book’s strongest points: from the tranquil town of Bristol to the rough streets of New York to middle class St Louis. Each place is portrayed in convincing detail.
Overall I enjoyed this novel, even though I struggled with the fact that it didn’t follow the form and course I expected. For readers who enjoy historical fiction it is an insightful glimpse into British and American life more than a century ago. It is also a moving tale of love, loss, suffering and survival.
About Clare Flynn: She is also the author of A Greater World, set in Australia in 1920 and Kurinji Flowers, set in India in the 1930s and 40s. She is a graduate of Manchester University where she read English Language and Literature. After a career in international marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she ran her own consulting business for 15 years and now lives in West London. Co-founder of the popular website, Make it and Mend it, and co-author of the 2012 book of the same name, Letters From a Patchwork Quilt is her third novel. When not writing and reading, Clare loves to splash about with watercolours and grabs any available opportunity to travel – sometimes under the guise of research.